Friday, March 30, 2007

Helen Keller

We went to see The Miracle Worker last week. It was the major production at Providence College, and Kyle Burgess (semi sort of adopted son living with us: from Zimbabwe; attending Providence) played the part of Helen's half-brother.

(Kyle at Christmas)

Now Lois and I are watching the movie version on NPR with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. Or I should say Lois is watching and quilting, and I'm listening and typing. Even this movie, so stirring and predictable (when I have the play fresh in my mind), is hard for me simply to sit and watch. The Final Four tomorrow evening is another matter!

One line out of the play: "Obedience is the gateway to learning": one line stands in sharp contrast to what we think today about raising children. Certain strands of that older way of thinking repel me: the idea that one must break the child's will in order to train the child is not one I endorse.

We have gone to the opposite extreme today. In Winnipeg there is a group of youth who steal cars for kicks, and recently have started trying to run down pedestrians and joggers as part of the game. As we try to work out how to respond to this situation, one realizes that many factors are at work: broken families; schools that no longer engage the children involved; the factors are almost predictable.

But the courts have added their own bit of lunacy to the picture by treating the epidemic as a case of children who just need a scolding. One of my colleagues referred to the practice in New York City of treating juvenile crime more seriously: working on the assumption that, if young offenders are punished severely at the beginning, they are less likely to enter a full life of crime.

I don't know the practice she is referring to, but one sees a kind of basic logic. Children learn early and quickly. If their first lessons in crime and law is that their actions receive a light sanction, they internalize that lesson and build on it. For Helen, breaking the cycle of tantrum-enforced misbehaviour was the first step into unlocking the world for the rest of her life.

I don't know what should be done in Winnipeg to reduce car thefts. Diagnoses are easier than constructive action. But the benefit of discipline is part of the answer -- for me individually, and for the U.S. and Canada as a whole.


KGMom said...

You cover a lot of ground in this post--Helen Keller, Winnipeg youth crime, child rearing philosophy.
I love THE MIRACLE WORKER but I had never pondered the implications of Annie Sullivan insisting that she "break Helen's will" before she can teach her. In the context of the play, it seems to me to be a different kind of will breaking. Helen had been neglected benignly by her parents who allowed her to do anything out of deference to her condition. I always thought Annie Sullivan was saying--she has to focus, to be disciplined in order to learn.
As for the Winnipeg crime spree--sad. So much research is being done on how the brain forms, and how children & teens simply do not have the physiological capacity to reason through why the things they are doing have lifetime consequences. That doesn't mean they should go "scot free" but it does mean that harsh punishment alone won't convey the message.
Sorry for the long comment--I am making up in length for your lack of other readers commenting!

Climenheise said...

Annie did not say she needed to break Helen's will: in fact, in the play she ponders how to bring about obedience without breaking her will. In the play, at least, obedience (not breaking) is the symbolic key. I meant that breaking the will was part of the idea behind the larger society's understanding of child-rearing.

I know that the brain is not fully-formed in 15 years old. Full formation of the frontal lobe occurs by about 24, I think. For me, that suggests the need for sharper, not more subtle, punishments. Since the capacity to reason out long-term consequences is not yet fully formed, the courts should make such consequences clear.

KGMom said...

On your assertion that the frontal lobe not being developed means sharper punishment is needed--I am thinking of the U.S. tendency to say--well, you did the crime, therefore you must be tried as an adult. I want to say--no, because they weren't reasoning as adults. Mete out some sentence that requires serious restructuring of lifestyle combined with counseling, but not prison.

Climenheise said...

We can have our own neat little debate here! Cool! We don't even need BIC-TALK.

I don't mean that lack of fuller awareness of consequences means that offenders deserve a sharper punishment. The point of my comment was that, if their own support structures (family; school; and so on) don't provide them with the ability to see what happens when they offend, then showing them that offenses do not have serious consequences hurts them more than helps.

I don't know the solution. Placing young offenders with long-term criminals helps teach them what to do next: no solution either. But the proverbial slap on the wrist brings the worst of all possible worlds.

KGMom said...

I was thinking the same thing--our own debate. Then I thought, we could just email back and forth. But this is fun too.
Re BIC-TALK Daddy asked if I thought I would get so much reaction from my question. I said I was really interested in the NPR story and wondered how BIC-TALK would react. I appreciate your nuanced observations.
There's a connection here--one woman on the NPR story surprised herself by voting to have the man join. Surprised because she had been a victim of sexual abuse as a child. There's a case where someone as a youth does not turn against society. Not to say all felonious youth have turned against society, but they are certainly displaying anti-social behavior. Especially in your example of car theft, then trying to run down pedestrians. How is that fun in any way at all?
Well, back to paper grading.